To Hel and Back :: Edit your Template To Hel and Back: August 2004

Friday, August 13, 2004

Santa Claus is not coming to town

Santa Claus is not coming to town.

Sure he’s made a list, and he’s checked it twice, but someone has been eating his reindeer so this year your presents are coming by DHL.

I’m writing this in the Arctic Circle and in case you’re wondering, no the novelty of saying that does not wear off. I’ve called clients and friends, sent emails and texted people all starting with the line “well I am in the Arctic Circle right now…”as casually as possible.

Most of you last heard from me after sleepless nights in airports Italian and Stansted. I made it to Finland, to the Portakabin Ryanair call an airport, watched my luggage bump on the floor after the 5 metre dead end conveyor belt and was collected by the first of my Finnish fixers, sporting thick winter socks and sandals.

I overnighted in a ski resort, nestled amongst stunning lakes, forest and unfortunately a motorway. Full moon hung in the pale sky, there was still enough light at 11pm to see clearly, ah lovely. I passed out too soon to appreciate it fully, with my forehead pressing against the hotel room window!

The next morning, was hot, a bit of a shock. Also a shock to be left standing out the front of my hotel door with loads of Finnish thick-necked broad shouldered men piling past me – no ladies first here! We’re not in Italy any more, Toto. Later a Finnish friend advised me if you’re walking to the door the same time as a man, you better open it yourself or you will smack right into it.

Arriving in Jyvaskala, the capital of the Finnish lake district, the humidity kicked in and a shopping trip was necessary, nay, essential to kit out for this unexpected glorious weather. It was a lovely four days of tanning with apparently some work in between! The highlight eating moose with some world rally champions, as you do.

From there, into the hands of my next Finnish guide, the lively and outspoken (very un-Finnish characteristics) Aila, who hailed from the north of the country and was accompanied by her bull mastiff who liked to sit on me. A lot. At 56 kgs, the novelty wore off pretty much as soon as the circulation in my legs did!

She, Aila, not the dog, drove the 728 kms from her house in Tampere to her parent’s home in Rovaniemi in the blink of an eye, and only one hot dog and a couple of doggy convenience stops later I was in the Arctic Circle.

Her mother greeted us with steaming bowls of reindeer stew and Lappi potatoes. This meal I called Dasher.

I jumped, straddled, walked along and danced the Arctic circle, winked at one of Santa’s elf, and disappeared into his grotto! I sent post cards, Christmas cards and Santa letters and bought some reindeer pate (lets call this one Prancer).

A traditional sauna was on the agenda but after seven years of England I have some British reserve about getting naked in front of strangers. The whipping of skin with birch leaves also takes some getting used to – I hate to think what the Finns do to be kinky. Traditional saunas are so hot, and nothing like the steam room style places offered in gyms here. When the water hits the stones you can feel a massive wave of heat make your skin literally shrink and not being able to see without glasses made me think that the hissing noises from the rocks was really coming from my skin. It was wonderfully refreshing though even if I was a bit of a girl about it all!

Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland, the home of Santa and also the site of mass destruction by the Germans following the war. A sombre trip to the German soldier’s cemetery made us question how much sympathy we could feel for the troops that razed the buildings of a city so badly that only about two pre-war buildings are still standing.

After three days in Rovaniemi, peering at massive ski jumps, walks up hills, walks around lakes, walks down hills, walks in lakes, eating more reindeer (I call this one Comet) and eating so much Lappi food that I look slightly like a Lappi potato myself it was back down 700 km of road to Tampere, resisting the urge to make Aila stop so I could take pics of every cute little bus stop (each county has a distinct wooden hut style) and old fashioned hay stack (they look like little hairy aliens) on the way. She did indulge me with a trip to Sweden though, which was a cool deviation.

Aila lives in a fantastic Finnish country house with rooms a plenty and only 300 Euro (that’s for the benefit of us paying London rent!) with miles of fields, pine trees, a breathtaking lake, little red barns and crunchy gravel roads underfoot. And it’s only 7 minutes from the nearest Alko (Finnish bottle shop) and only 30 kms from the country’s third largest city.

After days of walking and running crazy-like in the fields, collecting pine cones and berries, finding places for the perfect kiddies cubby house, and taking photos of everything green and gold from different angles, I did not want to leave.

But work and reality beckoned and without electric lights (not a quaint tradition but just that Aila hasn’t been home to do the wiring) internet access on something other than my phone I was starting to feel the need to get back and at least re-charge my computer’s batteries.

Next stop Deutschland Deutschland uber alles.

Photos of Rovaniemi in Summer

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Mille grazi por tutti

Hopefully that's Italian for MANY THANKS FOR EVERYTHING for everyone who acted as a yellow pages, travel agent, travel insurance, private secretary, and internet search engine yesterday...
(If you want to know what happened read on, if not just accept my thanks and you can end here)
I'm currently writing this from... (drum roll) Stansted airport, where I arrived at 1am this morning. The full story is that due to a typically Italian smash up on the motorway, the Ryanair-provided shuttle bus from town-of-historic-interest to airport-in-the-middle-of -nowhere did not have enough time to get to the airport.
We arrived - along with 29 other passengers - 2 minutes after check in closed. In all, 50 passengers were denied boarding at a cost of 60Euro per flight change. A nice little earner for Mr O Leary.
Naturally tiny Verona Brescia, Milan Bergamo and all the other obscure airports not anywhere near their names could not host this number of people so our options were to stand by for flights in the next 2 days or drive 200 kms to Bologna and take the only seats left on Tuesday.
So after much hiring of cars, sleeping in airports, driving to airports, getting lost on Italian motorways, not finding anything open in Siesta, rationing of food and threatening of other passengers we found ourself on a short list to London... It was make of break for me as there was only one seat left connecting to Finland and it could not be booked from Italy but I am glad to say at six am this morning, I got the last seat and the adventures shall continue...
On a more pleasant note: Verona is very agreeable, the opera was excellent, Aida was amazing - particularly with a full moon back drop, sweetcorn should not be on pizza, you can get drunk on campari, and if you're ever on the Autostrade A4 from Verona to Brescia, the B roads make a beautiful detour.
I'm off to wash my socks in the airport toilets...